Once I set my sights on the coastal route I thought it worthwhile to try another Workaway. Why bother taking such a big detour without putting aside some time to enjoy the fruits of the costeño culture…and twat around in the sea? Kimberly was looking for volunteers proficient in Spanish to work at her Cottages in the small town of San Jacinto and I signed right up.
When I was shown to my digs I burst out laughing. Was this a joke? After weeks of camping, shared quarters and hotel rooms which, Rondador Cotopaxi aside, ranged from adequate to downright depressing, I’d lucked myself into my own poolside cottage mere steps from the ocean.
Kimberly, the Canadian owner who retired young to move down here, was as great a host as I could’ve asked for. Warm, funny and hospitable, she made me feel at home right away. Kim bought the property about 3 years ago, converting it from an ugly, concrete motel/brothel into her own little Eden. Today she has 8 tastefully furnished cottages and 2 adopted street dogs: Toro, who is usually either cowed in the corner or barking like a maniac, and everyone’s favourite one eyed beagle mix, Mama.
As if things weren’t already good enough, Kim said I could have the first couple of days off to rest my weary legs. And so I swam in the pool, read my book, hung out with the guests and drank copious beers, all the while pinching myself. Surely this was too good to be true? I kept expecting to be handed a bone saw and asked to dismember a pig.
Over the next few days I met the cast of characters that comprise the San Jacinto/Clemente expat community. For some reason it’s largely occupied by Canadians but there are a fair share of Americans and Germans with the odd French or Brit thrown in for good measure. Gossip runs rampant and there’s a weekly schedule of poker, happy hour, burger night and karaoke that somehow feels as old as time immemorial.
The work turned out to be really chilled and mostly revolved around being friendly presence around the place, chatting to the guests, translating here and there and doing odd jobs around the property. The week days were quiet but on the weekends Ecuadorian families would descend upon the cottages, cramming upwards of 10 people into 2 bedroom apartments. Other than one prick who whistled at me for drinks, they were extremely generous and polite, often sharing their beer and food with me and even making the beds upon departure.
One morning I was making some porridge when Wilmer came running in.
“Quick! They’re pulling in the nets. If you help they’ll give you some fish”
“Wilmer, I don’t need any fish right now”
“Yeah, but I do!”
He handed me a plastic bag and led me out to the beach where there were two parallel lines of men pulling at a green net. Not wanting to leave Wilmer fish-less I tagged on to the end of one of the lines and, while I clearly had no idea what I was doing, no one said anything. Above a swarm of black frigate birds, pterodactyl-like with their narrow, pointed wings, circled waiting for their feed.
Once enough of the net was dragged on the beach I waded into the sea to the front of the line. Every now and then the leader would reach into the wash and pulled out a fat little silver fish and lob it back to one of the others, who slipped in into a plastic bag hooked to his belt. I noticed more and more sardines wiggling around in the water and picked one up. Not sure if this would be frowned upon, I threw it back and a frigate instantly swooped in and claimed its breakfast. With the net almost at the shore a group of men rushed to collect their shiny treasure while the frigates dipped and dived like WWII fighter planes, challenging the men for their share of the spoils.
Time flies in San Jacinto. Before I knew it I’d been there 2 1/2 weeks and felt like part of the furniture. In that 90s favourite “Everyone’s Free To Wear Sunscreen” Baz Luhrmann has a line that goes “live in northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft“. The Cottage life was too good, too easy. It was making me soft (quite literally too – when I arrived in Ecuador I was a skeleton man but after a combined month of farm diet and poolside beers I’d regained a nice layer of flab).
One of the best things about being on the road is the sense of purpose it instills. There’s always a goal, and great satisfaction comes from the feeling that you’re in constant forward motion, ever edging closer to a new town, a new country, a new adventure. Life at The Cottages was fantastic by any sane person’s standards but I’d grown to miss the toil and struggle, the long hours on the saddle, even having to fix the odd puncture*.
It was time to go.
Tunes: Billy’s playlists, The Rolling Stones, the guests’ choice of reggaeton, salsa and saccharine ballads, and that new Paramore song
Reads: The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami
*lol no. punctures suck